Imagine for a moment, that in 1965, in an effort to get better record deals, bigger notoriety, and more money, Frank Zappa, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones, Cream, the Yardbirds, the Beach Boys and James Brown joined forces to form a super group that went on to move millions of records as a unit and as individual entities. Imagine the ego clashes, the in-fighting, the disastrous tours and the drug use.
That story, minus roughly 30 people, happened in the early ‘90s when the Wu-Tang Clan—RZA, GZA, Method Man, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, U-God, Inspectah Deck and Masta Killa—nine rappers from the Staten Island projects who had trouble breaking through into the mainstream, decided to pool their collective talents and attack the mainstream through sheer numbers. The group had considerable albums sales together and apart, over 20 million sold, but experienced recriminations, break-ups, in-fighting, and the death of Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
Even after a reunion last year that produced the mostly Ghostface-less 8 Diagrams, and probably due to the amount of people involved, there hasn’t really been a definitive telling of the Wu-Tang Clan story. Sure, the group’s back story is mostly filled-in, but larger questions like Why is most of the group mad at RZA?, Why is Ghostface never around any more?, What led to the group’s break-ups, and fights?, Is it money, production issues, or what?, and how come no one visited ODB in the clink?, still go unanswered.
A new documentary, Wu: The Story Of The Wu Tang Clan hopes to fill in the gaps in the Wu-Tang Clan story with archival footage, new interviews with journalists, hangers on, and a few Wu-Tang members. Unfortunately, it ends up more like a brief primer on the group’s background, glosses over conflicts, spends too little time on anyone not named ODB, and is too sparse to cling to the “official story” tag it bears on its cover.
The greatest success of Wu is the extensive portion spent on the formation of the group and the highlighting of how unorthodox it was to have a group of nine rappers. Hip-hop’s success, much like solo pop music, is predicated on the allure of the personalities of the performers, and Wu-Tang would seem to be personality overload, but it somehow worked. Plus, the group emphasized the bars that each rapper was rapping more than any semblance of a pop-hook, providing a template for word-conscious rappers ever since.
Then the documentary loses its focus, jumping to the group’s first two albums (Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Wu-Tang Forever), the details of their recording contract (they signed to one label as a group, but individuals could pick whatever label that would give them a deal for solo albums), a lengthy tour in the late-‘90s (that’s importance seems to solely be that the documentary’s director, Gee-Bee, was able to secure, or shot some, of the footage), a quick flyover of the group splintering (for this part we rely on a posse member and a journalist interviewed who say, yeah, they had conflicts), before resting on ODB’s prison sentence and early death, ignoring most of the rest of the group for the last 15 minutes.
The documentary climaxes curiously with ODB’s death, with a couple members of the Wu entourage wishing that the group would get back together in the aftermath of ODB’s passing. A screen at the end of the flick tells us that they did, in 2007, but mislabels the album that the group released as 8 Diagram, missing the “s”.
The last section of the documentary is briefly focused on the acting careers of Method Man and RZA, and the solo success of Ghostface, before closing with a wrap-up of all the players involved, including, strangely, the career of Gee-Bee, who makes sure to shoehorn his legacy into that of the Wu-Tang Clan (in fairness, he did direct an early music video, “Protect Ya Neck” which is included in the paltry extras here).
The muddled focus does more than derail Wu at the 20-minute mark, it removes from it any significant importance. The crux of the problem is that Gee-Bee focused his film on the archived, “never-before-seen” footage he had in the tank, instead of focusing on the true story of the Wu-Tang Clan.
If Gee-Bee had kept his eye on the prize—the “complete” story and importance of the Wu-Tang Clan—instead of altering his focus to fit whatever old footage he had, Wu could have been an illuminating project. It could be that Gee-Bee’s success was hampered by the lack of new interviews from Wu-Tang members (only Raekwon and RZA have what appears to be new interviews), but then this shouldn’t have been longer than a 30-minute “where are they know?” segment on VH1.
There is a silver lining to the release of the DVD, however, and that’s that Loud Records has released a CD soundtrack, also titled Wu: The Story Of The Wu Tang Clan, that collects 16 Wu-Tang songs and is a much better legacy piece than the DVD. The album features Enter The Wu-Tang prominently (the first six tracks, half of the album), but also has ODB’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” Ghostface’s “Daytona 500,” “Run” by affiliate Cappadonna, and “Triumph” from Wu-Tang Forever. Essentially, just about every great Wu-Tang song recorded before 2000 (minus anything off of GZA’s Liquid Swords, perhaps the best Wu-Tang solo album).
By ignoring the superfluous solo albums and new Wu-Tang songs, the CD captures perfectly what the Wu-Tang was about: lyrical brutality, dry, amazing beats, a colliding of nine of the best MCs to ever rock a mike (well, maybe not Masta Killa), and the best personalities in hip-hop. For a Wu-novice, the CD is a near-perfect primer. Even if the DVD doesn’t do an adequate job of filling in the story, the CD reminds you why should care about the Wu-Tang Clan in the first place.